At a speech delivered in Munich on the 11th of November, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán outlined Hungary’s approaches to a variety of problems faced by European countries. From family policy and energy to immigration and the promotion of economic growth, he stressed that his government’s policies were necessary and that the ‘Hungarian model’ successfully defied the expectations of the European Union. In a curiously long analogy, he compared this so-called Hungarian model to the bumblebee, which is able to fly despite its wingspan and weight[i].
A number of these defiant policies have been cause for concern in the United States and European Union. For some, Orbán’s flight path has taken Hungary too close to Russia, and is seen as undermining the unity of the EU in the face of a resurgent Moscow. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to characterise the series of pro-Russian moves and statements by Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party as a remarkable volte-face for European politics.
Already under intense scrutiny from abroad for changes made to the Hungarian Constitution in 2010, Orbán attracted even greater criticism for a speech in July 2014, in which he claimed that the liberal democratic model of governance favoured by the EU was stagnating, and that the illiberal approaches of China, Singapore, and Russia were more conducive to growth and national prosperity.
This shift in foreign policy involves more than just words of praise. Fidesz approved an energy deal with Russia at the start of 2014. The Russian state corporation Rosatom oversee the expansion of Hungary’s Paks Nuclear Power Plant, and provide a substantial €10 billion loan; meaning Russia will foot nearly 80 per cent of the overall cost of the project. The EU has been asked to investigate the lack of transparency around the deal, while others have warned that it will make Hungary energy-dependent on Russia, which already supplies a vast percentage of its oil and gas. In light of this and the rerouting of gas pipelines that previously ran from Ukraine to Hungary instead, the United States has been stressing the diversification of energy imports to Hungary and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe more than ever[ii].
The praise for illiberalism and enactment of policies that have created closer ties with Russia seem strange coming from someone who first made his name in politics as an anti-communist student activist. Indeed, the magazine HVG recently posted a Youtube clip from 2008 where Orbán rails against ‘unpatriotic’ energy deals with Russia proposed by the socialist government at the time,[iii] making his current stance even more striking. Upon closer inspection, this apparent shift towards Russia is very much in step with his political opportunism. The move towards Russia is not, in fact, part of a brand new Hungarian foreign policy. It is a conscious positioning between the EU and Russia that has been in the works for a number of years and is influenced by two key factors. First, it is an attempt to gain a better deal from the EU on a number of issues including energy policy. Second, it is motivated by the domestic political position of Fidesz in relation to the far-right Jobbik party.
In his Munich speech Orbán stressed that Hungary belonged in the West, but his government’s policy towards Russia is an attempt to show that alternatives to the EU are available. The Economist makes a similar point that Fidesz do not wish to lose the benefits of EU membership, but wants greater concessions on a number of issues.[iv] Getting a good deal on energy policy is seen as pivotal, as cheap energy is one of Orbán’s flagship policies. The Paks nuclear deal will not only provide energy, but it draws attention to complaints made by Fidesz that EU regulations and taxes on energy imports and production constrain Hungarian growth.
By distancing themselves from the EU, Fidesz are also attempting to curb support for their closest electoral competitor Jobbik. An adjustment of foreign policy towards Russia has been used as a symbol of Hungarian independence from the EU. Hungarian ‘independence’ has been clearly demonstrated by Orbán’s vocal criticism of further EU sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis and his calls for autonomy for ethnic Hungarians in the West of Ukraine; both of which have been condemned by the US[v]. Whilst Fidesz remains engaged in a battle of populism, there is little hope that the current situation vis-à-vis the EU will change.
When one considers the importance of domestic politics informing Hungarian foreign policy, it becomes clear that alarmist cries of a Hungary joining a new ‘Eastern’ bloc are overly simplistic and miss the point. Orbán is attempting to shop around for the best deal, and his stance on EU-Russian relations is a Janus-faced one at best. This does not mean that there is no genuine cause for worry. It could be argued that one of the reasons Russia is investing in Hungary is to cause more division within the EU, even if Fidesz do not really wish to break away from it. Orbán and his supporters should beware of lurching too far from Europe or returning to criticism of Russia too abruptly. Like a bumblebee, the attempt to play both sides will meet its end if Fidesz overreacts and stings. A failure of this precarious foreign policy would have unfortunate consequences both for Hungary and the EU.